Writing Deeper: Turning a Character's Fail into a Win (and Vice Versa)

Nov 20, 2012

I'm lucky enough to have a brilliant and beautiful sister-in-law who is a fellow YA writer. She and I have attended conferences together, swapped stuff to read, and commiserated over writerly things others just don't get. She's author David Farland's assistant, and occasionally does crazy-awesome things like fly to New York just to meet J.K. Rowling. And she had some brilliant insights on my post about try/fail cycles, which I had to share with you all. So here for your reading pleasure is Kami McArthur!


"I had this sudden revelation that a character can succeed and fail at the exact same time, because characters have long and short term goals.

In Half-Blood Prince, Harry Potter's main, overarching goal is to find out what Malfoy is up to, which he fails at throughout the book. In Knockturn Alley, Hermione goes to Borgin and Burkes to try to find out what Malfoy wanted fixed and she fails, so it's a fail for the short term goal and the long term one. But on the Hogwarts Express, Harry eavesdrops on Malfoy (short term goal) and succeeds. But he fails to actually find out what he's up to. Maybe that would be considered a "Yes, but"--but in the big picture it's a fail for Harry and a bad fail as he ends up getting his face smashed in.

So sometimes the same event can be a "yes, but" and a "fail" depending on the context.

And there are examples where a failure ends up actually being a success in the long run. Like how Harry failed to break the habit of using Expelliarmus in Deathly Hallows, but the fact that he failed brought him success in destroying Voldemort--since that's the spell he beat him with.

You could play with it and have a character try to succeed at something, and when they succeed they actually realized they failed--that their success, in reality, ruined everything, not fixed it. For example, Snape worked for Voldemort, and therefore against Dumbledore. He overheard part of the prophecy that Professor Trelawney made to Dumbledore, and seeking to help Voldemort, passes along the information, which he would have considered a success. However, at the exact same time, it’s his worst failure, though he won’t realize it until later, because the prophecy results in the death of Lily. When he learns the prophecy might mean Lily’s son, the context changes and his action becomes a fail, especially since he prizes Lily’s life more than Voldemort or the Dark Arts.

You could also have a success and failure at the same time WITH the character’s knowledge of it. I think this one is more common than the last. Like at the end of the movie Dragon Heart you have a success and failure because Draco’s death results in the death of the evil prince (success), but it’s a fail because it also means the death of the dragons. The characters had two goals that conflicted—kill the prince, and save the last dragon.

I think these are different from the “Yes, but…” because the “Yes, but…” means the character succeeded, but now there’s more to it. Like Frodo’s original goal in Lord of the Rings was to take the ring to Rivendell, and eventually he succeeds BUT then he has to take it to the Crack of Doom, which is way worse and more dangerous than the journey to Rivendell, and to top it all off he doesn’t even know how to get there!

I think you could also try to create a double or triple fail (three goals fail by the same action) and then it would be extra devastating and a big blow. Or you could double or triple success by accomplishing multiple goals at once—though, I’m thinking this is usually how many stories end. But you could put something similar somewhere else in your story to twist it up if you wanted."

So, my friends, have you ever tried to take your story deeper by turning a win into a fail? Or vice versa? And hey, if you're on Twitter, do you want to follow Kami? She's looking for more writing buddies. (And as you can see, she's sort of brilliant.)

18 comments:

J. A. Bennett said...

Love this! I'm totally going to think about this post as I write :)

Adrienne said...

I love the "yes, but..." moments in a story. They really give the writer a chance to add new depths to both the protaginist and the antagonist. Thanks for sharing Kami's insights!

Tanya Reimer said...

Yes I love doing this. Just last night I had my character flop up a revenge kill and good thing he did because that bugger is about to save his life.
Ah. Magic.
Great post. Love it and wonderful meeting Kami!

Small Town Shelly Brown said...

Awesome stuff! This is the kind of stuff that love to change the way I plot. I'm like a yoga-plotter; I can always use a good stretching.

Jenny S. Morris said...

Man, this is awesome. I like the triple fail. I'll have to think about that for the lead up to my ending.

Steven said...

Great ways to make a story more interesting and more realistic!

Rose Munevar said...

Great post! Making a character fail makes it more realistic and interesting. Nobody wins at everything, and if that's all the character does he/she would seem flat and boring:)

Tamara said...

Wow. I was JUST talking about this with my son (we're working on a book together). The over-arching goal of the whole book is to accomplish one certain thing. There's a huge build up and the characters finally achieve their goal, only to find out it was the worst thing they could have done. And I loved that twist.

To me, anytime a writer does that it's awesome, because we (as readers) are taken on a journey and we think we know where we are going. When you end up at a destination that is a complete shock, it's a really neat feeling. It's like...you were along for the whole journey, but you still magically arrived at a place you never foresaw.

Very cool article. You are lucky to have a sister in law you can share this with!!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

This is a brilliant post. I'm planning my newest WIP and realized I've done what you explained here. Yay! :D

Lynda R Young said...

Fantastic post and lovely to meet Kami. Those "yes, but..." moments are great in stories and I think I need to add a few more in my own.

akossiwaketoglo.com said...

This is some serious food for thought. Thank you for a great post.

~Akoss

Leigh Covington said...

I think she's uber brilliant, and I am now following her on twitter. This post has my mind reeling. I love it! You are both brilliant - no wonder you make such a great team :)

LisaAnn said...

Great post, and I'm so jealous you get to have a writer sister-in-law! How awesome to have family to commiserate with! I'm off to follow Kami on Twitter... :)

Elliot Grace said...

interesting points to consider for us storytellers ;)

Thanks so much.

El

Cherie Reich said...

That is a great way of looking at the win/fail and how to use them in a story. I've used them in stories without really thinking of them that way. :)

Tammy Theriault said...

tagged you in my monday post...check it out!

Janet Johnson said...

I love mixing up successes with failure. Making readers feel excited and upset at the same time. Still working on being as brilliant as J.K., but this is definitely one of my favorite topics.

Nice to meet you!

Julie Daines said...

Great thoughts! Perfect for all of us as we're on the home stretch of NaNo! Shallee, I tagged you on my blog for a meme.

 
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